Vertical Ray of the Sun
dir. Tran Anh Hung
Opens Fri Sept 28
Fox Tower

The concept of a "return to normalcy" has been a hot topic recently. How quickly can, or should, a nation and its people move beyond traumatic events to an appreciation of what were once everyday concerns? The time scale for such a return in America can probably be measured in weeks or months, but for a nation utterly decimated by decades of conflict, it takes considerably longer. But life does go on, even in Vietnam.

Tran Anh Hung was born in Vietnam, but emigrated to France at the age of 12. His first feature as a film director was The Scent of Green Papaya, a memorial to the colonial Indochina he never knew, filmed entirely on French soundstages. Tran returned to Vietnam for his next movie, Cyclo, set in a crime-ridden Saigon still not recovered from the American War. Both features are colored by his recognition of what was lost during near-endless conflict.

With his new film, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, though, Tran tells a story that could take place anywhere, at almost anytime. Through a beautifully shot, subtly moving, universal tale, this multi-character family drama indicates that, perhaps, it's okay to move on.

Four siblings reside in present-day Hanoi. The two older sisters are married, and each deals with episodes of infidelity, or the temptation of it. The youngest sister and her twin brother live together in an oddly close, flirty relationship.

The family gathers at the movie's outset for a memorial service commemorating their late mother's birthday. It's revealed that she had spoken before her death of a man named Toan, who may or may not have been her lover. The sisters are torn between a desire for truth and the fear of destroying the idyllic image of their parents' marriage.

It turns out, of course, that their own marriages are less than perfect. The oldest sister's husband has a second family outside the city, while the middle sister's spouse is tempted by an old flame while on a trip to Saigon. Meanwhile, the youngest (played by cheekboned beauty Tran Nu Yen-Khe, the director's wife) seems naively intent on tempting her twin with a forbidden liaison.

Just as important, and more noteworthy, than Vertical Ray's narrative, is Tran's wonderfully languorous visual style. Long takes, cool yet sensual colors, and a camera that moves with serpentine elegance all contribute to a mood that perfectly captures what life must be like in a tropical climate: slow, never unnecessary movements coupled with a constant semi-awareness of the fecundity all around.

The color scheme, for example, gives prominence to blues and greens, maintaining a sense of the natural world even in the urban setting. Tran's attention to the hues captured by his camera extends from the walls of the twins' apartment to the blades of a fan in a coffee shop, and indicates a mind naturally fluent in cinematic communication.

The soundtrack also helps provoke a dreamy, listless mood, with selections from the Velvet Underground and Arab Strap intermingled with Vietnamese songs by Trinh Cong Son. In the movie's first scene, VU's "Pale Blue Eyes" sets the perfect tone.

With its focus on a middle-class family (the brothers-in-law are a writer and a photographer, the families are materially well-off) that could be right out of Chekhov, Vertical Ray is reminiscent of last year's Taiwanese import Yi Yi, but with the visual flair of Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai (in fact, this film shares a cinematographer with Wong's In the Mood for Love). As an example of Asian cinema's current revitalization, this feast for the senses marks Tran Anh Hung as one of its most exciting filmmakers.